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“Fewer And Fewer Regulators To Ensure Safety”: Austerity, Deregulation And The Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

Last evening, a fertilizer plant owned by Adair Grain Inc. in West, Texas caught fire, then exploded, killing several people and wounding at least one hundred. The blast, caught on video from afar, destroyed nearby homes, businesses and a nursing home for seniors. There are still lingering questions about how this happened, but documents suggest the plant faced little regulatory scrutiny.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the plant filed papers with state and federal environmental regulators in 2006 claiming that there were “no” fire or explosive risks at the plant. “The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a ten-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one,” noted reporter Randy Lee Loftis. Residents complained about the smell of ammonia as they “went to bed” that year, according to a filing.

As I pointed out on Twitter last night, in the last five years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has only inspected five fertilizer plants in the entire state of Texas—and the plant in West, Texas was not one of them. OSHA is severely understaffed and operates with a tiny federal budget. With the agency’s current resources, that means “OSHA can inspect a workplace on average once every 129 years and state OSHA inspectors could inspect one every 67 years.”

There are specialized inspectors for chemical plants that, in theory, should have covered where OSHA or environmental regulators left off. The US Chemical Safety Board, which came into operation in 1998, is the commission tasked with investigating safety violations. Like similar boards, the Chemical Safety Board has virtually no resources: only a $10 million budget to cover every violation in the country. The Center for Public Integrity has a new, incredibly damning report, showing that the agency has failed to investigate several recent disasters, including the death of a worker at refinery in Memphis last December.

Budget cuts, and the sequestration, loom large as every federal workforce is scaled back. Rather than provoking reform, at least in the short term, tragedies like this may get worse as there are fewer and fewer regulators to ensure safety at these types of facilities.


By: Lee Fang, The Nation, April 18, 2013

April 20, 2013 Posted by | Sequester | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Laughing Hyenas”: Props Of An Extremist Fringe Who Have Completely Lost Their Way And Any Sense Of Decency

The 41 Republican and four Democratic senators who voted to filibuster a bipartisan gun sale background check bill yesterday are rightfully losing friends quickly. After all, the bill they blocked was supported by over 90 percent of voters and 90 percent of gun owners. The backlash appropriately started the moment they voted to filibuster, as Patricia Maisch, a survivor of the 2011 Tucson mass shooting, yelled “Shame on you!” from the Senate balcony and told reporters “They have no soul. They have no compassion for the experiences people have lived through.” They then heard from President Obama, who called it a “shameful day for Washington.” Then, this morning they woke up to a no-holds-barred op-ed from former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, another tenacious survivor of the Tucson shooting, calling for every single one of them to be ousted from their jobs.

But these 45 senators still have friends. And it’s very telling who those friends are. The lobbying group Gun Owners of America immediately sent an email to its supporters praising the filibuster and taunting background check proponents, saying, “Well, guess who’s laughing now?” This is the same group that has claimed that expanded background checks would lead to a genocide against Christians, a Minority Report-style “pre-crime unit”, and even a race war.

Also happy with the filibuster was the National Association For Gun Rights, which called the background checks bill “draconian” and claimed it would lead to “confiscation” by “gun grabbers.”

And, of course, the National Rifle Association — the group that suggested the way to stop future school shootings was to put more guns in schools — was thrilled and “grateful” to the senators who had blocked the bill.

In his speech after the vote yesterday, President Obama said, “The American people are trying to figure out, how can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen?” It can only happen if the other 10 percent has many times more power than you or I. And yesterday, these out-of-touch, extremist groups were celebrating the fact that they still had that power to stop any and all measures to curb gun violence.

Part of the reason that these groups are the ones “laughing now” is that they have the combined support of a wide array of conservative lobbying groups. As a recent People For the American Way report put it:

The NRA is not alone in attempting to prevent effective regulation of guns and promoting reckless policies that leave Americans vulnerable to crime. Its efforts are supported by the same kind of coalition that undermines the nation’s ability to solve a wide range of problems. Corporations, right-wing ideologues, and Religious Right leaders work together to misinform Americans, generate unfounded fears, and prevent passage of broadly supported solutions.

Although there was lots of competition for this dubious distinction, in one of the most offensive comments made by an opponent of efforts to curb gun violence, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky accused President Obama of using the families of massacred Newtown, Connecticut schoolchildren as “props.” Sen. Paul and his colleagues should consider whether it is they themselves who have become the props of an extremist fringe who have completely lost their way and any sense of decency.


By: Michael B. Keegan, The Huffington Post, April 18, 2013

April 20, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Not Even In The Game”: Lawmakers Who Set A Poor Example

It’s been a difficult week for so many Americans. As recently as last weekend — which seems like months ago — many were concerned about a missile test from nuclear-armed North Korea. Since then, we’ve seen the bloodshed in Boston, the deadly explosion in Texas, the ricin letters, Midwestern flooding, and a Senate minority ignoring the will of 90% of Americans.

It can be a bit much, and when people are feeling on edge, they need to see their elected officials operating at their very best. The vast majority of officials, known and unknown, have been exemplary.

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), however, appears to be falling far short of this standard.

It didn’t take long for a lawmaker to pick up the latest right-wing conspiracy theory about the Boston Marathon bombings. Just hours after controversial terrorism expert Steve Emerson reported [Wednesday] night on Sean Hannity’s show that unnamed “sources” told him the government was quietly deporting the Saudi national who was initially suspected in the bombing, South Carolina GOP Rep. Jeff Duncan grilled Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the rumor at a hearing [Thursday] morning.

Duncan, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency, presented the conspiracy theory as fact, chastising Napolitano for deporting a terror suspect (who, in reality, isn’t being deported and isn’t a suspect). Napolitano, annoyed, replied, “I don’t know where that rumor came from.”

As it turns out, it came from Hannity’s show, and was pushed very aggressively by Glenn Beck. Drudge and Erick Erickson talked it up, too. All of them were completely wrong.

And while that’s unfortunate, right-wing media personalities aren’t on the House Homeland Security Committee. Duncan is, and he used his official platform to pester the Secretary of Homeland Security, in a public congressional hearing, with bogus information he presented as fact, all because he couldn’t tell the difference between reality and silly conspiracy theories.

Worse, when Napolitano tried to set the record straight, Duncan pressed forward, saying, “He is being deported.” Except, of course, the person in question is not. When the far-right congressman continued to spout nonsense, Napolitano effectively gave up, saying Duncan’s inquiries are “full of misstatements and misapprehensions,” and “not worthy of an answer.”

Wait, it gets even worse.

Aviva Shen noted a separate exchange from the same hearing.

In a House hearing Thursday morning, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano was sidetracked from her testimony on the DHS budget when Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) asked her to respond to an online conspiracy theory about the DHS supposedly stockpiling ammo for an attack on Americans. Duncan argued this was more credible than mere “Internet rumors” because the Drudge Report, a popular conservative aggregator, said it was true.

It’s a difficult time, and Americans need sensible policymakers to keep their heads on straight, serving at the top of their game. In other words, the country needs officials who aren’t acting like Jeff Duncan.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 19, 2013

April 20, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Impervious To Logic”: Congress Betrays Our Dwindling Faith

The way to stay sane in this city is never to expect too much.

So the soothing mantras of the capital involve admonitions about the art of the possible, the perfect and the good, the zen of baby steps.

Incremental, incremental, incremental.

Still, it is hard to remain calm in the face of the Senate’s failure — its failure as the parents of children murdered in Newtown, Conn., looked on from the gallery — to pass the most modest of measures to curb gun violence.

We tend to speak easily here of how Washington is broken and gridlocked.

But those of us whose day jobs sit at the intersection of politics and public policy don’t completely buy it. We retain ragged shreds of faith that Washington, despite its maddening imperfections, remains capable of rising to at least some occasions.

Except on Wednesday, it didn’t, as the Senate fell six votes short of the 60 required to expand background checks for gun buyers. It is an indication of the perennially warped politics of guns that politicians can more safely support same-sex marriage than background checks. Indeed, what passed Congress in 1994 — an assault weapons ban and strict limits on magazine sizes — is now unthinkable.

The background-check measure proposed by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey is — I’ll refrain from the past tense, because Wednesday’s loss was not the final chapter — so sensible, so pared-down, that the stronger argument against it is that it failed to go far enough, not that it ran roughshod over the Second Amendment.

To review: Under current law, individuals who want to buy guns from licensed dealers must pass background checks. Manchin-Toomey would expand that requirement to in-state gun sales over the Internet (interstate sales are already covered, because the guns can be sent only to licensed dealers for transfer to the buyer), to gun shows and to other commercial transactions.

It would not apply to sales or transfers between family members and friends — notwithstanding the National Rifle Association’s claim that it would “criminalize the private transfer of firearms by honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution.”

As Manchin said on the Senate floor, “That is simply a lie. . . . You can loan your hunting rifle to your buddy without any new restrictions. . . .You can give or sell a gun to your brother or your sister, your cousin, your uncle, your co-worker without a background check. You can post a gun for sale on the cork bulletin board at your workplace or on your church bulletin board without a background check.”

Another criticism of the measure — that it “would put us inexorably on the path to a national gun registry,” as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) put it — is even less moored to reality. A national registry is banned under existing law; Manchin-Toomey would layer on a 15-year felony sentence for anyone who tries to implement one.

That leaves an array of other arguments against the measure that fail the simplest tests of logic.

Felons and others ineligible to buy weapons aren’t being prosecuted under the current system. Also, the existing system fails to list numerous individ­uals already prohibited from having guns. Okay, prosecute the ineligible would-be buyers and fix the list.

Expanded background checks wouldn’t have prevented the Newtown shootings. Okay, but expanded checks might prevent another killer. No single change is going to prevent every episode of gun violence.

Expanded checks would impose a burden on law-abiding citizens without preventing criminals from obtaining guns. Under the existing system, more than 2 million people have been barred from buying guns. Did some of them go on to obtain weapons illegally? Of course. But others were deterred — and in any event the expanded checks would narrow the currently huge loophole that lets felons buy guns without background checks. That some criminals will always break some laws is not an argument against having those laws in the first place.

The depressing aspect of Wednesday’s vote is that the change was so small and the senators so seemingly impervious to logic.

Wednesday’s vote will not end the gun debate. After nearly two decades in which Democrats barely dared whisper about gun violence, the notion of new restrictions has become safe again — to broach, if not to enact. In the aftermath of Newtown, this time was different.

It just wasn’t different enough.


By: Ruth Marcus, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 18, 2013

April 20, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Violence | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It Isn’t Just Boston”: An Event Like The Bombing Brings Out The Best In People, No Matter Where They’re From

We’ve heard many inspiring and heartwarming stories from Boston about how people acted in the aftermath of Tuesday’s bombing—rushing to aid the injured, opening up their homes to strangers, being kinder and more considerate than they would have been a week ago, in ways small and large. Many people elsewhere have expressed solidarity with the city of Boston, and I think that’s great. But amidst it all there are some strange expressions about how all that admirable response is somehow uniquely Bostonian. I’m not trying to condemn anyone, but it’s something we always seem to fall into when there’s a shocking and tragic event like this one. It certainly happened after September 11, when stories of heroism and generosity were so often followed with the sentiment that “Nowhere else in the world” would people have acted in such praiseworthy ways, as though had a similar tragedy happened in Tokyo or Copenhagen or Johannesburg, people would have just left each other to die on the sidewalk. I’m not the only one who thinks this way; at Slate, Luke O’Neill is a little discomfited by the way people are talking about his city:

This line of thinking cropped up more and more frequently as the night wore on. This is Boston! Now we’re about to show you what we’re made of. What does that mean? Are we sending a team of our most drunken, sports-crazed townies over to—where exactly?—to find the people responsible? Are we going to settle this terrorist attack with a fistfight outside The Fours? “Clearly … someone forgot what happened the last time evil showed its face in Boston” read another meme friends have been posting over an image of two icons of Boston cinema’s trademark roguish Irish outlaws. I can’t decide if that’s more or less infantile to think the fictional characters from The Boondock Saints are going to materialize to fight terror than to post pictures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy offering Boston a hug. Elsewhere, Today trotted out “Boston” prop Mike Barnicle to explain how owah tragedies ahh moar powerful than yowahs. “This was as if someone came into your living room and attacked you in your home,” the longtime Boston newsman said. “That’s the feeling, that’s the sense of the crowd. This was an attack on family.”

Some of the support from outside the city was even worse. One particularly parasitic example came from page-view profiteers BuzzFeed, whose list of 29 Reasons to Love Boston (subhead: “Wicked awesome”; sample entry: the Citgo sign) explained to the world that we’re a city that has things to do and look at. Thanks for the reminder. One of those things we’re known for here is Dunkin’ Donuts, which, somehow, inexplicably, showed up in numerous expressions of defiant pride. What does a fast-food and coffee chain have to do with how Boston specifically reacts to a terrorist attack? It’s like people were just listing off things that they associate with Boston in order to … well, I don’t really know what the motivation behind that is. I’m not sure what the missing steps are between watching videos of people rush to the aid of bombing victims and pledging your allegiance to a specific brand of iced coffee.

It isn’t that cities don’t have particular personalities, born of history, the particular mix of people who live there, the industries that dominate, the way geography and weather shape the lives people live, and so on. Of course they do. For instance, I used to live in Philadelphia, which takes pride in a certain boorishness (Did we boo Santa Claus and throw snowballs at him at an Eagles game? Yeah, well, he had it coming). I also grew up in New Jersey, whose motto, I’ve long maintained, should be, “New Jersey: Fuck me? No, fuck you.” Washington, where the Prospect is based, certainly has some things to commend it, but it has far less of a distinctive municipal personality than many other cities do. But the point is, the things that distinguish different cities have virtually no impact on how their citizens will react to an event like this bombing.

What does? Our humanity, that’s what. It turns out that confronted with a shocking, dramatic, tragic event like this, people instantaneously find what’s best in themselves. They become braver than they might have thought they’d be. They extend a hand to each other. They come together. That’s what people do.

By all means, we should shower praise on the people of Boston for how they’ve reacted; they deserve it. And we should hear from them about how this event has affected their city. But it would be wrong to convince ourselves, in our understandable eagerness to laud them, that the good things they’ve done wouldn’t have been seen elsewhere, too.

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April17, 2013

April 20, 2013 Posted by | Terrorism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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